Brighton Beach Memoirs, the play Neil Simon wrote in the early eighties as a way of celebrating and examining his thirties outer-borough boyhood, relies heavily on the patented Simon shtick. All the heavy-handed double takes, the pauses that are just too pregnant, should be fun, right? But the fun doesn’t last—the dialogue becomes oppressive quickly. (And there’s more of it to come: Brighton Beach Memoirs is the first play of Simon’s “Eugene Trilogy,” which also includes Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound; a revival of the latter, with much of the same cast as this production, begins previews on November 18, and the two will run in tandem.)
This revival, directed by David Cromer (Our Town), clearly tries to ease up on some of the play’s aggressive broadness while preserving its raucous, slightly crude spirit. But that broadness, like a persistent jack-in-the-box, can’t be tamped down for long, and the result is a wearying evening of squeezed-out laughs. Simon’s alter ego, the hormonally charged 15-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome, isn’t the hero of the play—he’s the tummler, working overtime to coax a response from the audience. The actor who portrays him here, a newcomer named Noah Robbins, fulfills Simon’s intent to the letter. He’s playing to the house pretty hard, especially during the extensive narration.
Things improve when Robbins is paired with Santino Fontana, as older brother Stanley. The two kvetch, kibitz, and otherwise hash out the problems of the family’s overcrowded, underfunded household, including Eugene’s embarrassing crush on his comely cousin Nora (Alexandra Socha), part of the extended family huddled under the Jerome roof. And as Eugene’s parents, the beleaguered pair who keep the whole circus going, Laurie Metcalf and Dennis Boutsikaris transcend the often facile material. Metcalf tempers her character’s perpetual world-weariness with subtle, believable flashes of sexuality, and Boutsikaris plays the overworked breadwinner not as a cliché but as a breathing, slightly flawed individual. When those two are onstage, the pinched yuks become ornery joy.